"True story," Selma director Ava DuVernay chimed in.
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In 2014, the cast of Selma and their director, Ava DuVernay, showed up to the film's New York premiere wearing "I Can't Breathe" T-shirts. The moment was meant to raise awareness of protests at the time surrounding the death of Eric Garner, a black man killed on Staten Island by a police officer who put him in a chokehold. Garner repeated "I can't breathe" 11 times while lying on the sidewalk until he lost consciousness. He was pronounced dead after being taken to an area hospital. Reflecting on this moment today, at a time when nationwide protests and riots continue in America over the killing of another black man by police, star David Oyelowo states this photo-op five-and-a-half years ago was a big reason why Selma was snubbed by Oscar voters.

"Selma coincided with Eric Garner being murdered," Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King, Jr. in the biopic, said during a recent edition of Screen Daily's Screen Talks. "That was the last time we were in a place of ‘I Can’t Breathe.'"

Selma cast protest police brutality
Credit: Ray Tamarra/GC Images

Selma dramatized the events surrounding King's 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in a fight to secure equal voting rights for African Americans. “I remember at the premiere of Selma us wearing ‘I Can’t Breathe’ T-shirts in protest," the actor continued. "Members of the Academy called in to the studio and our producers saying, ‘How dare they do that?' 'Why are they stirring sh—?’ and ‘We are not going to vote for that film because we do not think it is their place to be doing that.' It’s part of why that film didn’t get everything that people think it should’ve got and it birthed #OscarsSoWhite. They used their privilege to deny a film on the basis of what they valued in the world."

DuVernay confirmed Oyelowo's account in a tweet that read, "True story." A rep for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not have an official comment, though the official Oscars Twitter account responded to DuVernay's tweet.

"Ava & David, we hear you. Unacceptable," it reads. "We're committed to progress."

Selma's Oscar snubs were indeed some of the bigger talking points during the 2014-2015 awards season.

The film won an Oscar for Common and John Legend's Best Original Song and received one other nomination for Best Picture, though it was not a nominee for the directing, writing, acting, and technical categories. DuVernay and Oyelowo had previously been nominated for Best Director and Best Actor in a Drama Golden Globes, respectively.

“There’s a lack of diversity, period,” Oyelowo said at the time of the Oscars. “I think I was the only real shot, myself and Ava, at individual nominations. We’ve got to put a dent in that and make sure that’s not the case. I fully intend to be part of the solution and not the problem.”

Tessa Thompson, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, André Holland, Common, Colman Domingo, Niecy Nash, Wendell Pierce, Stephan James, and Lakeith Stanfield also featured in various roles. According to DuVernay in a tweet on Friday, Selma is available to rent for free on U.S. digital platforms for the month of June. "We've gotta understand where we've been to strategize where we're going," the filmmaker wrote. "History helps us create the blueprint. Onward."

In 2016, Academy president Cheryl Boone promised "dramatic steps" to increase diversity among the Academy's membership. Six months later, the organization welcomed 683 new members, 41 percent of invitees being people of color and 46 percent being women. More recently, in 2019, 842 members were invited to vote in the Oscars, 29 percent being people of color and 50 percent being women.

This article has been updated with a tweet from the Academy. 

To help combat systemic racism, please consider donating to these organizations:

  • Campaign Zero, which is dedicated to ending police brutality in America through research-based strategies.
  • Color of Change, which works to move decision makers in corporations and government to be more responsive to racial disparities.
  • Equal Justice Initiative, which provides legal services to people who have been wrongly convicted, denied a fair trial, or abused in state jails and prisons.

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